“I want to be an Olympic gymnast, the world’s best soccer player, a magician or computer coder, a horseback rider, a circus acrobat!” Our kids have active imaginations and constantly changing interests and career aspirations. With summertime just around the corner, camp programs offer a variety of options to test out and try new experiences and activities (or to solidify and grow current skills!). If you’re a first time camper family, the choices can be overwhelming. So, where do you start and how do you choose the perfect summer camp?
Step 1: Talk to Your Child.
First and foremost, this is the most important step. What type of activities is he or she interested in pursuing? Would a general camp program with lots of different options be the best fit, or a specialty camp that focuses on one or two areas of expertise such as a computer coding camp or soccer camp.
Step 2: Decide on Your Budget
Deciding what type of costs you want to commit to camp this year early on will help ensure our final choice works not only for the experience, but also from a financial perspective. According to the American Camping Association*, the average residential camp fee is $85 a day, whereas the average day camp fee is $43 a day. Keep in mind, many camps offer financial aid or payment plans, so don’t necessary disregard a camp based on price point until you explore financial options.
Step 3: Choose Length of Stay and Dates
Look at your calendar and note any special dates already committed to or other summer plans such as a family vacation, a wedding you can’t miss or a work conference you need to attend. Then think about if a day camp where you camper comes home each night is preferred, or if your camper is ready for the challenges of an overnight, residential camp. Lastly, how many weeks should your child be away? Program lengths vary from one week to all summer. Camps often times have a variety of sessions broken down into smaller chunks of time, such as two week sessions, so if you want a longer program but have special dates your camper needs to be home, you can sign up for two non-consecutive sessions.
Step 4: Narrow Down by Location
With so many camps to pick from, choosing an ideal location will help you focus your search. Are you hoping to find a local camp within easy driving distance or send your child to another state or country for camp? Are the mountains or ocean important factors, or maybe a camp near grandma and grandpa?
Step 5: Consider Environment and Culture
This is a big consideration and in some ways matters more than activity choices. Think about some of these questions as you look further into camp preferences:
- Sleeping Arrangements: will your camper be comfortable staying in a tent for two weeks, or do they need a building with running water and soft beds?
- Activities: does your child want to make choices about what they do each activity period, or will a more structured option work best? Is there a preference for co-ed versus single gender programming, or grade specific versus mixed ages?
- Communication and Visitation: be aware many camps discourage use of cell phones, so communication tends to be via camp director, email or snail mail. If contacting your camper with his or her cell is important, you’ll need to find a camp that can accommodate that request. In addition, parents may communicate in person at some camps on special parent visiting days or events such as closing campfires or BBQs.
- Special Accommodations: if you camper has dietary restrictions, physical differences or a current injury, can the camp accommodate it?
Step 6: Talk to Friends and Do Some Research
As with most things involving our kids, our best resources and recommendations can come from our friends and family members who have already been through it. Where do their kids go to camp? What have been their experiences – good and bad? After talking to some people, hop online and find out what options are in your location of choice.
For local camps, we like the Daily Camera’s Summer Camp Guide. For local or national programs, a general google search or the American Camping Association Find a Camp feature and MySummerCamps.com are good starting points that can help your choices with a mini-survey.
Make sure your camper is very involved in this step! Encourage him or her to look at the websites or printed materials. It will help your camper get excited about the experience as well as help them feel more comfortable once they arrive at camp.
Step 7: Call Camp and Set Up a Tour
Talk to the camp director and find out more about the program. These 10 questions to ask when choosing a camp is a good resource if you’re not sure what to ask (if you really want to go above and beyond, here’s a list of 100 questions to ask).
If at all possible, tour the camp and see the facility. This can be especially helpful if your camper is nervous about going for the first time. Seeing the camp and meeting the staff gives potential campers AND parents a better impression of what to expect. As we talked about in step 5, make sure the culture will be a good fit for your family. Do you like their communication style, accommodations and program activities? Do you agree with their supervision, discipline style and general philosophy?
Step 8: Register, Submit Paperwork, and Review the Packing List
Once enrolled, you should receive a welcome packet. Submit all necessary paperwork, and remember to be honest. The more you can tell the counselor or camp director, the more staff can do to ensure success for your camper. Almost all camps required a form from a doctor, especially if your camper is on medication, so you look at booking an appointment if needed.
Next, review the packing list supplied by the camp. If you have any questions, be sure to reach out to the camp. Remember, campers share their living space, so be sure to label items with first and last name and don’t pack anything that would leave you or your camper devastated if it was lost or broken. Generally sleeping accommodations have limited space for camper belongings, so leave the kitchen sink at home. Your camper will be okay with what’s on the packing list.
Lastly, check the camp’s policy on sending pocket money for camp store purchases or special occasions. Many camps have moved to a “bank” system for camp stores where parents deposit money for their camper to access via the store, therefore eliminating the need for campers to actually have cash.
Step 9: Prepare Your Camper and Yourself
Confirm the drop off and pick up times/locations and plan your schedule accordingly. Make sure to talk to your child about the camp experience and what to expect. Remind them that camp is about trying new things, meeting new people and mastering new skills. It’s okay if they’re not the best at something, that’s why they’re there – to get better! It’s okay if your camper is shy, encourage them to introduce themselves and let them know their counselor is there to help guide them and give advice if needed.
If you’re nervous about sending off your camper, check out this article or this guide and remember this is a healthy part of growing up – for both you and your child! Expect some level of homesickness and be prepared to set up your camper for success, especially with younger campers. Counselors and camp directors are excellent resources for what to expect and how best to handle homesickness to encourage the camper to continue their experience while still feeling supported. On the flip side, it’s common for parents to get campersick as well. Hang in there, Mom or Dad, your camper will be okay!
Step 10: Off to Camp!
This is the fun part! The day has finally arrived to let your child grow! Enjoy some kid-free time and prepare to listen to all the exciting adventures and stories from camp when your child returns home.
*Additional Resources: https://www.acacamps.org/press-room/how-to-choose-camp/preparing-for-camp